Brian De Palma, like Alfred Hitchock and Dario Argento, is always looking. So are his characters, and in the opening of his new film, Femme Fatale, Laure Ash (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) watches Double Indemnity on French television. De Palma conceives for Romijn-Stamos a vixen made in Barbara Stanwyck’s image, only he remembers to give his creation a humane purpose. For Laure, this is a spiritual act (one of many baptisms in the film), and for De Palma it’s a correction: he flips Billy Wilder the bird by saddling his femme fatale with a crisis that matters, even if her personal pain is not readily apparent when she and a group of thugs break into the Cannes Palais, hoping to swipe a fortune in diamonds from Regis Wargnier’s whorish girlfriend Veronica (Rie Rasmussen), with whom Laure makes out in a bathroom stall while Wargnier’s hideous East-West plays on the big screen.
Looks can be deceiving in De Palma’s films, especially in Femme Fatale, a work of pure aesthetic rapture whose sinuous camera movements are the stuff of dreams. The director’s remarkable use of water imagery welcomes Jungian readings, beckoning comparisons to Argento’s Trauma. Seven years after betraying her cohorts in crime, Laure returns to Paris a new woman—literally and figuratively—and married to an American ambassador (Peter Coyote). De Palma is a master of signs: The Déjà Vue 2008 poster that decorates a telephone booth outside Nicolas Bardo’s (Antonio Banderas) apartment may seem like a simple wink to the audience, but the use of John Everett Millais’s Ophelia as cover art for the poster hints at Laure’s trouble with water. (In Trauma, and Argento upstart Chang Youn-hyun’s Tell Me Something, the Millais painting is used for similar stirring effect, suggesting dreams haunted by waking lives.)
Laure packs a gun and a one-liner or two, challenging the way men perceive women and using that awareness to devour and spit out her men. De Palma performs a triple whammy when he superimposes Romijn-Stamos’s face over that of the film’s many women (Stanwyck during the film’s opening shot and Mellais’s Ophelia when Laure chit chats with Nicolas over cold espresso): he acknowledges the character’s split self, reinforces the dreamlike impulsion of the narrative, and provides the sexist noir tropes of the past with another affront. De Palma’s formal fixation with dualities is so pervasive the film takes on the texture of something to be deciphered—like a puzzle. (Always there’s a sense of the past looking forward into the present, and that any given move can forever change the shape of all things.) Even the dash that separates East from West in the title of Wagnier’s waterlogged film suggests a crisis, one between two very different worlds of thinking (and making movies).
De Palma has made remarkable use of split-screen before but never has it been so self-reflexively and personally deployed as it is in Femme Fatale. Nicolas is a washed-up paparazzo who comes to Paris hoping to reinvent himself, only he discovers that he has nothing to photograph but the church plaza across the street from his apartment, and the collage he creates on the walls of his apartment represents his ongoing struggle to reinvent himself. It is clear that Nicolas is meant as a proxy for De Palma, only the director’s struggle is an attempt to tease, update, and correct the noir tropes of the past. But for both Nicholas and De Palma, Romijn-Stamos becomes the holy vessel through which they realize divine moments.
Warner Home Video presents Femme Fatale here in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Colors are vibrant throughout and blacks are rock-solid, even in the lowest of light scenarios. Even the fuzziness of the film's more melodramatic scenes is more adeptly conveyed on DVD than it was on the big screen. Surrounds are excellent on the Dolby Digital 5.1 track though it's the deep bass that truly stands out, especially in some of the film's more delirious sequences (Rie Rasmussen running away from thugs across the street from the church plaza and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos inside her doppelganger's water-logged apartment). Every flash of a photographer's camera, every stomp of a stiletto heel against pavement and ever crescendo in Ryuichi Sakamoto's fabulous, classical-inspired score is an elegant composite of the film's rich tapestry of sound.
Though there isn't a feature-length audio commentary on this DVD edition of Femme Fatale, Warner Home Video provides the next best thing: a series of captivating featurettes filmed on the set of the film and featuring interviews with the cast and crew. "Femme Fatale: Dressed to Kill" is a useless fluff piece featuring stills and shots from the film. A behind-the-scenes featurette dumbs-down the film's many complexities and is ultimately just as useless. It's the lengthy "Visualizing Femme Fatale" and "Femme Fatale: An Appreciation that offer the most insights. De Palma discusses how Femme Fatale is his most unconscious film and even addresses the role of women in his films past and present. He also goes on about the dreamlike nature of the film, which means you shouldn't be watching any of these features until you've seen the film. Also included here are cast and crew filmographies and a theatrical trailer.
Here's something to watch over and over and over again, though some will be deconstructing other things besides Brian De Palma's unconscious mise-en-scène.